11.27.2014

Expressing Thankfulness on Thanksgiving Day:


When I was young, holidays were all about me...or so I thought.  It was about what gifts people would give ME, because I was the center of my universe.  As I've grown and matured through the years, I've come to appreciate the deep value of holidays as a time for reflection.  While I am (and we are) thankful daily, I think expressing our thanks as a group has tremendous value.

So after we finished eating lunch and sat around the table talking, I unfolded my son's art easel and explained to the family and loved ones what I hoped they would do with me.  Starting from the youngest and moving up to the oldest, I asked each person to express one thing for which s/he is thankful.  I started writing the answers on the easel, but my oldest son liked the idea of drawing pictures better...so he drew peoples' answers.  He was right, it was much better.

We laughed and we cried as we shared with each other what was on our hearts: one person was healed of cancer, others experienced restored marriages or relationships.  We expressed thankfulness for love that was lost and found, jobs that provide income.  And we expressed thankfulness for the grace, faithfulness, and salvation God our Savior has lavished upon us. 

As each person shared, we didn't simply leave it at that.  Instead, we talked about their reflection and if that same thanks affected our own lives.  I thought it was a tremendously remarkable experience to hear and share.  As I listened, I was truly blessed.

God, thank you for all those things (...and more) you heard us talking about today.

11.15.2014

"Bonhoeffer Abridged: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy", by Eric Metaxas (book review)


INTRODUCTION: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian pastor in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, was killed for his opposition to the regime.  Born in 1906, and turning to Christ at a young age, Bonhoeffer entered pastoral ministry, and stood firm amid persecution.  In the early '40's, he humbly and courageously accepted his fate that was held by the gallows.  This is his story in abridged format.

REFLECTIONS: I have mixed feelings when I read biographies like this one.  First, I am discouraged by the eerie shadows of history looming over us, as if history is waiting quietly to "repeat itself".  On the other hand, I am encouraged as I enjoy peering into the lives of courageous men and women who have refused to bow their knees to the tyrant-du-jour, despite facing real threats of execution.

Nazi Germany issued harsh ordinances against Christians, forcing allegiance to the Hitler and his Reich (p.119).  Those who rejected it were rewarded with death, while those who paid it allegiance did not fare much better. Still, while many acquiesced, some remained faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of them.

There seems to be a common thread found among the message of the persecuted in Jesus Christ, and that is the deep faith they have in their Lord.  When Bonhoeffer fled to America in the early 1930's, attempting to find relief from persecution, he wrote of the American church, "In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life" (p.43).  The Church that waters down the message of the gospel faces certain risk of death.  The German church allowed it to happen then, and the American Church has been doing it since.  History suggests that it is only a matter of time before Christians in the West face similar oppression as those under the hood of the Third Reich.

In 1937, "more than eight hundred Confessing Church pastors and lay leaders were imprisoned or arrested" (p.112).  And "In Berlin, the Confessing Church planned a service of intercession...two hundred and fifty of the faithful were arrested..." (p.115).  Since the early days of Christ's Church, persecution has only strengthened its resolve against evil.  The Christian under these pressures "must obey God rather than men" (p.113).

I was most encouraged by one of Bonhoeffer's statements near the end of his life: "To be sure, God shall call you, and us, only at the hour that God has chosen.  Until that hour, which lies in God's hands alone, we shall all be protected even in greatest danger" (p.145).  What a tremendously powerful proclamation of the sovereignty of God, and it ought to encourage the faithful.  No matter what evil men may conspire against the Bride of Christ, nothing will come other than that which is at God's direction.  Bonhoeffer's words are in line with God's word: "no harm will befall you, and no evil will come near your tent" (Psalm 91).

As death loomed over him, Bonhoeffer was a man who was faithful to the end.  As he was led toward the gallows, Bonhoeffer quietly said to his fellow captives, "This is the end.  For me, the beginning of life" (p.208).  Reflecting upon Bonhoeffer's death, one camp doctor concluded, "I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God" (p. 209).  O, when my day arrives, may those words be said of you and me.

RATING: I give "Bonhoeffer Abridged" 4 stars out of 5.  I was a good book -- not a "page turner", but certainly worth my reading time.

DISCLAIMER: I received this book free of charge from BookLook Bloggers (Thomas Nelson Publishers) in exchange for my unbiased review of it.  All opinions are mine; they were not forced upon me.  I was not promised anything in exchange for a positive review.

11.11.2014

Always a Hero:

From 1968 to 1969, my dad fought for others' freedoms in a country literally on the other side of our world -- VietNam.  For many years after the war, he tucked away the stories, thoughts, and emotions.  I didn't come to realize just how painful those memories of losing some of his best friends in combat were until one Christmas about 20 years ago.  Here's our story.

I was rummaging through the attic in our home one day and came across a dusty, black box.  I wiped off the dust and opened it, finding a treasure of US Army medals inside: 2 Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, and a Silver Star.  I had little idea what these medals meant or the emotions they carried with them.  All I knew as a naive, uninformed 18-year old is that my dad fought in 'Nam.

That's when the idea struck me, "I'll put these in a shadow box.  He'll like that."  I talked the idea over with mom, who gave me tips on how to make the shadow box.  After finishing it, I had the epiphany, "I'll wrap it like an American flagHe'll love it!"  I finished off the shiny wrapping with pride.  I was so excited not only to give it to him for Christmas, but to watch him open it.  Oh the joy he would experience upon opening these long lost treasures!  Right?

Christmas morning came, and it was finally my turn to give him the surprise.  I carefully handed dad the American-flag wrapped box and watched him open it.  Slowly.  He looked inside and slowly closed it.  I don't remember him saying much more than, "Thanks, buddy."  I was taken aback that he wasn't more excited.  Remember, I was naive, so I didn't understand why he wasn't more excited.  When the days and weeks passed by and I didn't see the shadow box proudly hung up somewhere, I felt sad.  Not just for me, but for him. Because that's about the time it hit me.

That Christmas season was the point when I realized these were no long-forgotten medals.  Instead, dad remembered them clearly; and he remembered too vividly how he "earned" them.  The price was his own blood and the lives of his friends, comrades, and brothers in arms.  These medals were tightly closed away, not out of forgetfulness, but simply guarding the feelings and emotions of the great soldier whose breast they once adorned.

I have scant memories of dad ever talking about his ordeals in VietNam until one day about five years ago.  I'm bad with dates, but it was probably around 2009-2010 -- nearly 40 years after returning home from war -- that I would begin hearing stories and seeing pictures that told of the times he and his men endured.  I saw pictures of men huddled around boots and rifles and tanks and trucks; pictures of men with their arms around each others' shoulders, laughing and smiling, probably in celebration that they were still alive to see another day -- probably already trying to tuck away the painful emotions that accompanied the pain and loss they had already experienced.

More than forty years later, dad seems like he is healing well.  I'm sure there's more inside, but he talks about it, actively visiting schools, spending time with troops in V.A hospitals, and speaking at events.

Today happens to be Veteran's Day 2014.  I called dad to "chit-chat" with him on this day when so many of us simply appreciate the day off of work, or the overtime allotted for working a holiday, or even the sales at the stores.  Today, he told me about his weekend.  Helping.

A program called "Never Forgotten Heros" has made its way into my dad's life.  It is a program designed to help veterans of war in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from physical and mental (PTSD) trauma.  Dad told me about the 3 days where he selflessly served his country yet again.  Twelve young soldiers, ranging in ages from the low 20's to the mid-to-upper 30's shared and opened up and broke down with a handful of soldiers many years their senior.  It was a time for all of them to connect in some way -- a time for the young to lean on the old; a time for the old to honorably hold up the young; a time for these senior soldiers to pass along to young warriors the encouragement and support that they so desperately needed during their own journeys toward healing.

My heart pounded with pride as my dad humbly told me about how he was now involved with a few of these young men as a result of this weekend.  I said, "You 'da man, Pop."  'Cuz that's what I call him, "Pop."  And "You 'da man, Pop!" is guy talk for, "Dad, I am so damn proud of you!"

You see, in 1969, my dad was having a whole much of metal pinned to his chest for risking his own life to save the lives of other American GI's who had moms and children and sisters and fathers at home wishing for their return.  Some gave all, but all gave some.  Now in 2014, my dad is sacrificing his own time once again to help other young heroes find healing and wholeness in their lives...one day at a time. 

He IS -- not was -- truly an American hero.  Because once a hero, always a hero!

11.01.2014

"My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich", by Dietrich Von Hildebrand (book review)


Dietrich von Hildebrand's "Mein Kampf Gegen Hitler" stands in stark contrast to Hitler's manifesto with a similar -- albeit shorter -- title.  This memoir is a work that details Hildebrand's philosophical and public opposition to Germany's Nazi party socialism of the 1930's.  Ironically, many of the issues written by Hildebrand in the '30's has validity in America.

LAYOUT: The book is divided into two pars.  The first couples the editor's commentary and Hildebrand's memoirs regarding events leading up to and surrounding the rise of Nazism and his opposition to its destructive philosophies.  The second contains thought-provoking snippets from a publication for which Hildebrand shared his thoughts.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: We all know first impressions are important.  So I have to be honest, I thought the book was boring...until I got to about the middle.  Prior to then, I thought more could have been edited out to make it shorter and more interesting.  I really didn't find interesting that Hildebrand ate this or that dinner with this or that dignitary as they discussed the color of the sky.  I'm being facetious, but it's not far from how the first half of the book read.  After the middle, however, reading began to get interesting.  It was then that I noticed much of what Hildebrand wrote had application today.

THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS: I thought, "How much of a battle is it when someone simply writes about his displeasure?  Is it enough to simply speak/write?  Or should we do?"  But that's easy to ask when I live in a relatively safe America where my freedoms are not threatened if I speak out against the state.  But when one's life is at risk for speaking out against a dangerous philosophy and regime, writing and speaking is an altogether different issue.  Hildebrand wrote, "...it is precisely our struggle against evil that God wills, even when we suffer external defeat" (p. 206).  The editors remind us that Hildebrand's "struggle against Hitler was above all carried out on the battlefield of conscience" (p.240).  If you can change a person's (or a society's) mind, you can change his/its trajectory.

Have you seen any of the recent terrorist videos where a hostage is seen kneeling in the sand moments prior to being beheaded?  I've often wondered, "Why don't they resist?  Why not fight until you die?  You're no mere propaganda...FIGHT!"  Similarly, the question was asked of Germany and how it could allow the rise of Nazi socialism and racism: "Why did no one resist?" asked Hildebrand.  His answer: "There is a moment when intimidation and paralysis set in to such a degree that one becomes passive in the face of something harmful, no longer actively resisting, even though the possibility of resistance still exists" (p. 51).  Lesson learned, don't EVER give up!  Fight, speak, write -- do what it takes to oppose evil.

Robustly Catholic, Hildebrand also spoke loudly against the church.  He was one voice, but the echo in the background suggested if others had spoken up, the rise of Nazism might not have been what it was.  It appeared as though the church capitulated to the Nazi movement, hoping to gain favor in the eyes of the Fuhrer.  That hope lasted only momentarily, as eventually Hitler took off his mask and returned the church's capitulation with persecution.  Hildebrand wrote, "...rather than politicizing Catholicism, one must instead Catholicize politics" (pp. 281-282).  Once again, don't EVER give up!

I wonder if Americans are looking toward government as their "messiah", expecting the state to Solve all problems and right all wrongs.  Hildebrand addressed that, as well: "...the transformation of the face of the earth does not proceed primarily from without by means of laws of the state, but rather from within by means of the conversion of the person" (p. 282).  I think Christians today would do well to remember this truth.

SUMMARY CONCLUSION: The thoughts I've shared above serve only to spark an interest in your mind to consider reading Hildebrand's memoir.  While the early chapters were boring, I do not regret pressing forward reading to the end.  I was shocked how applicable Hildebrand's words are in today's climate.

RATING: I give this book 3 1/2 stars out of 5.  It was interesting, but the early boredom knocked it down a bit.

DISCLAIMER: I received this book free of charge from "Blogging for Books" in exchange for my unbiased review of it.  I was not threatened, coerced, or made promises in order to provide a positive review.  All opinions are mine.

10.18.2014

"The Maxwell Leadership Bible - NIV (book review), edited by John C. Maxwell

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a lot of Bibles in America.  I'm beginning to think publishing companies publish gimmick Bibles in September like gyms offer membership discounts in January.  For both, their design is to get people in, but they fail to keep people there.  Leadership guru, John Maxwell, can now add the book of all books to his portfolio: the Holy Bible.

The Bible itself is the New International Version with several leadership principles and articles intertwined throughout its pages. Now, I'm not opposed to gimmicks, new gym memberships, or Bible reading, but I'm skeptically concerned with why this version had to be published.  After all, John Maxwell already has a million books on leadership.  As trustworthy as he is, do John Maxwell's words somehow lend more credibility to the words of God?

FEATURES:

1) Each biblical book contains an introductory page or two, which contains smaller sub-units regarding God's role in the book, listings of "Leaders" and "People of Influence", and various "Lessons in Leadership".  The introduction of each book concludes with an index of "Leadership Highlights", which directs readers to various pages within the biblical book that Maxwell highlights as containing leadership principles or qualities.

2) Leaders whose names were listed in the introductory section of each biblical book are described within the book why they were good or bad at displaying leadership qualities.

3) Drawing on his book, "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership", Maxwell plants brief snippets of each of these 21 laws throughout the Bible.  The laws in view in the particular books describe how the characters displayed leadership or lack thereof.

4) Numerous leadership principles are highlighted throughout each biblical book, highlighting...well...leadership qualities, rather than godliness.

5) There are more, but they're not really all that noteworthy.  You'll see why if you just keep reading.

DRAWBACKS:

Why am I being so hard on The Maxwell Leadership Bible?  Because it is man-centered rather than Christ-centered.  For example, in 1Kings 10 (p. 421), Maxwell highlights a section entitled, "Play to Your Strength: the 70-25-5 Principle".  Introducing the highlight, Maxwell writes, "Great leaders play to their strength."  He continues to explain the wisdom and riches of Solomon, but gives only a mere tip-of-the-hat to Solomon's Creator.  The short reading ends with a question and answer: "How did Solomon gain such fame?  He focused on what he did best.  Leaders would be wise to follow a similar pattern, called the 70-25-5 principle."  Rather than pointing readers to Yahweh-God, he directs them to his own 70-25-5 principle! 

Another leadership lesson, this one found in Romans 15 (p. 1,356), simply refers to Christ as a "model", rather than the Savior of sinners.  In his "Servanthood: Leaders Lose the Right to be Selfish", Maxwell's 4th point describing a servant is simply this: "Imitates Christ -- we are to look to Jesus as our model."  Ohhhh, Jesus: the good teacher, good role model, good example.  But no Savior!

Here's one more.  Embedded in Titus 2 (p. 1,465), Maxwell provides a lesson in "Leadership Development: From Shepherding to Developing".  There, Maxwell provides three lists (Shepherding, Equipping, Developing) containing ten items each.  Descriptors included in those lists include such traits as, "Care", "Feel better", "Addition", "Skill-oriented", "Person focus", "Empowering", etc.  Nowhere does Maxwell point readers to godliness, holiness, or the Cross. 

CONCLUSION / RATING:

While I understand leadership principles can be drawn from God's word, I don't think those principles were the Holy Spirit's focus when inspiring its writing.  I didn't sense much of an inspiration by Mr. Maxwell to point readers to the Cross.  Instead, he points readers to the self.  In this Bible version, there's a whole lot of Maxwell, but little-to-no Jesus.  If Jesus Christ, Paul, Peter, etc pointed sinners to the Cross, I think it would be good for us to maintain our focus there, as well.  Mankind is broken because of sin, and no leadership quality will ever heal our sin sickness -- and THAT is the focus of God's word.

I give the Maxwell Leadership Bible just 1 star out of 5 (because I have to give it something, right?). 

DISCLAIMER: 

In exchange for my unbiased review, BookLook Bloggers provided me with this free copy.  I was not promised favors, threatened, or coerced to provide a positive review of it.  All opinions are mine. 

10.14.2014

THAT'S WHY WE PRAISE HIM:

Recently, Victoria Osteen, wife of mega-church pastor motivational speaker, Joel Osteen, said, "When we obey God, we're not doing it for God...we're doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we're happy. Do good 'cause God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you're not doing it for God, really. You're doing it for yourself because that's what makes God happy."



She's taking some heat for it in the Christian community -- and rightfully so, I think. While I believe she is THEOLOGICALLY incorrect in her statement, I think she is PRACTICALLY correct.

She's theologically incorrect because God is not dependent upon US in order for HIM to be happy.  God is fully pleased within Himself whether we are happy or not.  God said of Jesus at his baptism and transfiguration: "This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased."

However, I want to give Victoria a smidgen of credit -- because I think she's more correct than many Christians are willing to admit.  How many people attend worship services on a regular to semi-regular basis than to (1)feel good about ourselves or (2)look good in others' eyes? 

How many attend in hopes to earn points with God on some mysterious "goodness scale"? 
How many attend out of mere habit and ritual?
How many attend because we think God will be more pleased with us, and therefore give us what we want in life?
How many attend because our public image might be sullied if we aren't "in church" on any given week?
How many attend out of a desire for "political expediency"?  "Will this give me more votes from the religious right in the coming election?"

With that, I think Mrs. Osteen is right on, for many of us ARE "doing it for ourselves".

I would suggest that if we simply "attend" worship services, then we may be in serious trouble.  If that is the case, we better do some serious introspection to determine if we are even in Christ Jesus.  The following questions, while not an exhaustive list, may help us:

Do we desire to worship our Creator and hear from Him via His written and spoken word?
Do we desire to be involved in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Do we worship and hear from God any other days of the week than Sunday?
Do we gather together in order to pray for and encourage one another in Christ?
Do we worship when times (health, finances, etc) are good AND bad?

Christian, it is my hope and prayer that we recognize our complete need for God, that we depend upon Him for everyday life and breath.  It is my prayer that we recognize our brothers and sisters in Christ depend upon us to be there.  We need each other to walk with, to encourage, and to give counsel in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The gospel isn't just for "getting people saved", but is for the daily lives of the blessed saints of God -- and THAT'S why we praise Him!

9.28.2014

COMPASSIONATE MERCY:

Where I live, there are thousands of people who are living in darkness -- not in a lack of light; but in spiritual darkness.  No doubt, it would be no less true if you inserted your city's name into that statement.  Sadly, many of those souls will leave this life before the end of 2014 and behold their first glimpse of eternity.  Many will leave before the end of the month; before the end of the week.  Maybe even before I'm done typing this.

Do those souls -- drunks, wife-beaters, murderers, thieves, etc -- deserve God's wrath in the eternity that awaits them?  Unquestionably.  Do I, however, deserve His mercy? Surely not, for I am the worst sinner I know.  For some reason, however, God, has chosen to show His great mercy and compassion to sinners galore.

The ancient prophet of Yahweh -- Jonah -- faced a situation in which his enemies (the very enemies of God) were subjects of God's mercy and compassion.  That account is over in Jonah 4.  Yahweh's mercy was so shocking that it would be similar to Him showing mercy upon Islamic State militants today.  Jonah was ecstatic shocked; but I have to admit, I think I'd be ecstatic shocked too.  Jonah was pleased angry at God for showing His great compassion on a people of His own choosing; but I have to admit, I think I'd be pleased angry too.  Had Jonah forgotten that he, too, was once a sinner not deserving of God's mercy?  Yet, God, in His great compassion, showed mercy even to him.  I sometimes forget that I, too, was (and still am, if not for Jesus Christ) undeserving of God's mercy.

I'm getting to my main point in just a moment, but first let me draw your attention to two verses that stand out to me in this Jonah account.

First, Jonah's confession that God is a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love; that He is eager to turn back from destroying people (verse 2).  Did you notice that?  Eager to turn back from His wrath!  Truly, this is bold!

Next, is God's announcement that Ninevah (insert your city's name here) had, at the time, more than 120,000 (insert any number you wish here) people living in spiritual darkness.  Then He asked Jonah, "Shouldn't I feel sorry for such a great city?"  It will forever boggle my mind why God would ever want to restrain His hand from instantly destroying His enemies.  Yet, He does.

As I consider that conversational exchange, I must ask myself, How does this inform and influence my involvement in the arts, or forensic science, or politics, or law, or fatherhood?  Do I use those arenas to extend God's compassion and mercy to my city, workplace, family? Are people relieved when I arrive, suspecting that I will provide strong hope, compassion, and gentleness?  Or do they dread my arrival, knowing that I will do nothing but gripe and complain and bring them down with me?

These are sobering questions I've asked myself, but I think I'm afraid to hear the answers.  If I truly believe this, it seems to me that I should live a life of compassion for the outsiders, the broken, the not-so-attractive, the unpopular.  Instead, I routinely choose judgement and condemnation.

May God help me.